I’ve known artist Sam Tung for a number of years now; we even collaborated on a 5-page comic once upon a time. I knew he was working in Hollywood, but I was still shocked to see his name while waiting for the after-the-credits scene in Iron Man 3. Since Iron Man, Sam has worked on other big properties including The Jungle Book, The Dark Tower, and more. I was excited to interview him about his experiences making movies and his perspective as someone with a background in comics, and I know you’ll enjoy the result.
How did you get your start in a career as competitive as movie making?
It took a lot of time and effort! I moved to Los Angeles and was eventually able to get an internship at Nickelodeon Animation. At the same time, I began taking classes at Art Center at Night and Concept Design Academy in Pasadena. These programs opened my eyes to the types of jobs available in the industry and the skills I’d need to get those jobs. After Nickelodeon, I got a job as a production assistant (PA) at visual effects studio Digital Domain, while continuing to take classes at CDA. After several years of grunt work and classes, the right job eventually connected me to the right person, and I was able to get storyboarding work with my portfolio.
Was your more cartoony/expressive style a tough sell, as it often is in comics?
This is a hard question for me because while my style is regularly described as “cartoony” I never think of it that way. It’s less realism-focused than someone like, say, Bryan Hitch, but it’s definitely not cartoony enough to get me jobs on a lot of animated television programs (something like Amazing World of Gumball or Fairly Odd Parents, or probably even Steven Universe or Rick & Morty).
I do think it would be helpful to push my style towards more realism — I think a lot of live action storyboards live in that space rather than more stylized.
Can you describe what your duties are as a storyboard artist?
As a storyboard artist, it’s my job to create a series of illustrations that serve as the “blueprint” for what’s going to be shot or animated. I have to think about shot composition, camera moves, actors’ performances, and editing to tell the story as clearly as possible, so my work can be used as an unambiguous guide for everyone downstream of me on the production. Storyboarding can also involve a lot of logistical problem solving — for example, if a script is vague about the layout of a space, I’ll have to figure out exactly how the action will play out in that area. Other times, there may be budgetary restrictions, and I’ll have to figure out how to communicate everything in a scene without using too many visual effects shots, for example.
How much communication do you have as a storyboard artist with the writers, directors, etc. of the films you were working on?
I work very closely with the director on the project, which is really cool and creatively rewarding. Sometimes I’ll be working a bit with the cinematographer and production designer, as well. Depending on the project, I may have more or less creative input. On commercials, directors will often have a very specific shot list, and my work is more technician-like. On films, directors usually have some ideas but are interested in my input and some brainstorming for storytelling. I also want to stay in communication with the production designer in case there is reference material I need to use, and the cinematographer to make sure I’m staying within their vision.
As someone who grew up on comics, what was it like working on Iron Man 3 and seeing your name in the credits?
It was an absolute dream-come-true. I lived and breathed Marvel Comics growing up and working on Iron Man 3 as my first big film project felt like being a kid in a candy store as all the armor was being designed and visual effects shots were coming together.
How did you transition from Iron Man to The Jungle Book?
I did both of these projects at aforementioned visual effects studio Digital Domain. They liked me enough to keep me on for several projects, from Iron Man 3 to Maleficent to The Jungle Book.
Did the amount of CGI in The Jungle Book affect how you storyboarded?
I mostly worked as a coordinator on The Jungle Book but was able to squeeze in a few storyboards at the end as a sort of “trial run,” which lead to me storyboarding Jon Favreau’s Air Jordan commercial. There’s been a lot written about the incredible production pipeline on Jungle Book — from a more traditional animated feature-style story room to virtual production and cinematography on the motion capture stage, to the live action shoot, and the final visual effects work. Since, like an animated feature, the film would be almost entirely virtual, there really aren’t many limitations on what you can do like there would be on a live-action feature, but I think the creators really wanted it to look and feel like something that could be shot with a real camera.
How does working on storyboards compare with drawing comics?
They’re more different than a lot of people, myself initially included, realize! At first glance, they seem to have a lot of overlap — drawing-focused, narrative, sequential illustrations. But in comic books, you’re drawing fewer panels with higher detail, and there aren’t nearly as many rules. Your panel sizes and shapes will change, and it doesn’t matter if you break the rules of cinematography or editing, since the pace the reader consumes the book is sort of up to them.
In storyboarding, your storytelling is much more granular — decompression might be another word for it — you’re basically making a miniature movie. In animation, in particular, you’re posing out every beat of the character’s performance! Every shot has to connect to the previous one in a way that makes sense. Any oddities in editing or composition will be a lot more jarring for a film audience than a comic book audience.
#AdventureApril is a uniquely executed comic, with the bulk of the pages being portraits of new characters. What motivated you to tell the story that way?
That’s interesting — I didn’t really think of it as a comic, but I suppose it does fall under the definition by nature of being narrative words + static images. #AdventureApril was a prompt for an art challenge by Matt Johns. I mostly followed the prompts but thought about what the narrative for my story was along the way, layering in hints of a larger world and narrative. It was often a character design exercise, though sometimes I drew more narrative scenes, to give it some variety or explore an idea that was interesting to me.
Are the portraits purely worldbuilding or do you consider their inclusion to be part of a narrative?
In my head, the portraits are all characters that the heroes meet along their journey, though I haven’t put a ton of thought into the specific story beats of every interaction. It’s interesting, though, to see how even with a project that was mostly a design exercise begins to suggest narrative. Characters and places and items from previous illustrations show up in later renderings which clearly suggests continuity.
Was #AdventureApril a way to unwind after spending most of your time helping tell other people’s stories?
That was the goal, but in other ways, the challenge of turning out a relatively polished design every day for 31 days wasn’t especially relaxing!! It was definitely a lot of fun and very rewarding to get back to drawing and designing my own projects. Sometimes when you’re drawing movies and commercials all day for a paycheck, it’s easy for me to forget that I actually really enjoy drawing, so in that regard, it was a lot of fun. But, it’s called a drawing challenge for a reason, and that regular commitment while working full-time is definitely, well, a challenge. At the same time, it was fun to push myself, exciting to meet other artists attempting the same challenge at the same time, and satisfying to create a complete project relatively quickly.
Do you have any interest in getting back to comics full-time?
Oh man… never say never, but truthfully, I think it’s unlikely any time soon. Perhaps someday, in that mythical time in the future when I have a lot of free time, I’d like to tackle a personal project. But, the brutally honest answer is, the money in comics is just not very good unless you sell an IP, and that requires you to do a lot of work up-front for low pay. The creative control over your work is really special and rewarding, but in my experience, the work-to-pay ratio in comics is not very good, at least at entry levels.
There is incredible work being done in comics, though — I recently picked up Gael Bertrand’s A Land Called Tarot and thought it was wonderful, and very much in line with something I might like to tackle.
What are your long-term goals as a creator in Hollywood, the comics industry, or somewhere else entirely?
In the short term, I’d like to eventually storyboard exclusively films. Commercials are fun and quick, but not as creatively fulfilling or as widely seen and enjoyed. On the backburner, I’m working on pitches for film and television projects, and it would be really exciting if I was able to get one of them into production.
I’m a huge, huge fan of tabletop RPGs — Dungeons & Dragons and the like — and would love to work on one of those someday, whether for a big publisher or a small-press indie game. I’d love to work on a medieval fantasy project.
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with a creator or player in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at [email protected].